No writing advisors are more contradictory than those who say you must plan and outline vs. those who say you must plunge in and discover. Which works? Who the hell knows? What works is what works for you. I suspect that, like most things, the sweet spot lies somewhere in the middle. I understand those who decry the wasted effort of seat-of-the-pants scribblers. But I also believe in discovery, which can’t be planned (though outliners say discovery emerges best when the writer has an orderly plan that frees the mind to create). I do know that outlining after writing is valuable to see patterns, connections, redundancies.

In a helpful blog I follow, Pen on Fire, a podcast series of interviews with writers, novelist Andre Dubus III weighs in with the anti-outline faction. “Even a rainy Tuesday afternoon when you are worried about bills is a better day because you wrote,” he told interviewer Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, summarizing his philosophy and adding, “Don’t outline it. Go one true sentence to the next and see where it goes.”

In the interview, Dubus is frank and passionate—a regular carpenter- and teacher-guy as well as a literary artist who takes three or four years to finish a book. I’d enjoyed the movie made from Dubus’s House of Sand and Fog and read his The Garden of Last Days, the novelist’s meditation upon the final days of the 9/11 hijackers, who hit strip bars in Florida before their suicide mission. In addition to his no-outlines edict, he made an interesting distinction between fiction that is “made up”—planned and plotted—and that which is true because it is “imagined.”

Some excerpts:

“There’s an essay I’d recommend by Tim O’Brien called ‘The Magic Show’ [collected in Writers on Writing]. He makes a really brilliant point about characterization: Characters are flat when the writer has already figured out what he or she is trying to say . . .  We do a disservice to our own imaginations and the figures that reside there. I tell my writing students, ‘Don’t outline your stories.’ There are some wonderful writers who do but there are many more who don’t. I find it much more helpful not to. One of the things you do when you outline is send a message to your imagination that you don’t trust it and you give it this safety net that I submit it does not need. And then when your characters show up in this thing you’ve contrived, they are going to have a job to do, things you need them to say and not say. Then characters become puppets and you become the puppeteer, and I think the reader always sees that. What O’Brien says is successful characterization is not a nailing down, which TV does all the time . . . clichés that do a disservice to how wildly mysterious and symphonic and miraculous we are inside and how, frankly, we can never know another. If you go into writing with an open heart, you are going to find things you didn’t know were there.”

“I don’t think writers have to worry about plot nearly as much as they think they do. So much of this is an act of faith, this daily surrendering to this weird thing we do. But the horse knows the way. If the heart of character-driven fiction is character, then setting and place are the lungs. And without that the character can’t breath. If you have a real character in a real place, then things are going to start happening. And you can deal with plot later.”

“I am on this book tour and I have a notebook with me, not because I am disciplined but because if I go without writing I feel far away from me. I tell young writers that if they can go three months without writing they probably aren’t a writer. If they feel strange after three days they probably are writers.”

“I do a lot of research on jobs. I went down to Florida and went in the strip clubs these men went to. For instance, I did not know that the strippers aren’t paid by the house they work for—they have to pay the house. I read thirty books on Islam and read the Koran over and over. Until I felt like I had enough knowledge. I would ask a prostitute where she had sex, but I would never ask how she felt. Because that’s the joy of writing. You research the what’s but not the whys. You get the whys through the writing.”

“I get stuck all the time. I think we get stuck when we write a lie and won’t admit it to ourselves. We know we’ve got to do some major revision and we don’t have enough courage to do it. The other thing is we’ve just stopped asking enough questions. Sometimes that sticking point is weeks or months.”

The Pen on Fire blog is here, and the interview with Dubus is here.

In April 2009 Dubus told Newsweek his most essential books:

1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. “By the final page, I was trembling.”

2. Selected Stories by Andre Dubus. “When I read these gems, my late father is back on earth.”

3. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake by Breece D’J Pancake. “A dark and poetic collection.”

4. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. “This work of history reads like a Russian novel and allows its subjects not to be generals and presidents but real men and women.”

5. Selected Stories by Alice Munro. “Her characters are more alive than some living human beings!”

A book he frequently returns to: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. “Honest, wounded, naked, yet ironic.”


  • John says:

    Very liberating. Recurring nightmare: “You are hereby condemned to write outlines for all eternity.”

  • Scribbly Jane says:

    Very timely post Richard. I just finished outlining my memoir in an attempt to figure out an arc for the story. Although it was a helpful exercise, I agree that much of the creativity happens while filling in the gaps.

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